Discrimination against Aborigines: the facts


Wednesday, July 8, 1998 Issue No.324 Green Left Weekly. 

Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party claim that Australian Aborigines receive “special treatment” not afforded to all other Australians. The “privileges” they receive, she says, “discriminate” against non-Aborigines and should be withdrawn. Native title, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, targeted health, welfare and education funding and, as of last week, the Race Discrimination Act must all be abolished in the name of “equality”, she says.

In the following, abridged from a longer article, JOHN TOMLINSON reveals the facts — that indigenous Australians continue to suffer gross discrimination and the lowest living standards in the country.

In the aftermath of the High Court’s Wik judgment, the prime minister’s 10-point plan to extinguish native title on pastoral leases makes political sense only if indigenous Australians are conceived of as separate from and of lesser importance than other Australians.

Governments during the 1950s and 1960s maintained Aborigines as “natives” by institutionalising them on segregated reserves.

Aboriginal people who resided off reserves, and who were not assimilated into white society, were relegated to fringes of country towns and ghettos like Redfern and South Brisbane. They were assigned a welfare/charity role that encouraged their being pitied as “victims of their own inadequacies”. In rural areas the women were exploited sexually and the men utilised as seasonal workers. In both city and rural areas, they were marginalised.

Indigenous issues were perceived by the general public to be of little political importance until the period leading up to the 1967 referendum. This is the historical background that generates current perceptions of indigenous Australians.


The life expectancy of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is about 15-20 years lower than that of their non-indigenous counterparts in WA, SA and the NT. In most states and territories, their babies are two to three times more likely to be of low birth weight and about two to four times more likely to die at birth.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council (1996), between 1988 and 1994, the gap between Aboriginal and total Australian mortality rates widened, especially for women. About 30% of maternal deaths occur in Aboriginal women and Torres Strait Island women, who constitute only about 3% of confinements.

Governments claim to be promoting dramatic solutions, yet Access Economics has shown that health expenditure on each indigenous person is lower than that provided for the non-indigenous population, and the level of underspending on indigenous health has stayed remarkably constant over the last 20 years. During the 1990s on Cape York, women were dying at a younger age than in 1979.

In 1979, the first recommendation of the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Health was that the highest priority be given and immediate action taken to provide clean and adequate water supplies to all Aboriginal communities. By 1996, an ABS survey estimated that 7% of rural indigenous households still did not have running water. There are at least 100 Aboriginal communities in remote Australia which do not have access to clean drinking water.

Indigenous Australians die younger and are more frequently sick, essentially because in many places they do not have access to clean running water, decent nutrition and adequate housing with safe sanitation systems. None of these essentials is beyond the capacity of Australian governments to provide. The failure to provide them can only be explained as institutional racism.

Last December, the Howard government promised several billion dollars in loan guarantees to assist the International Monetary Fund to prop up the economies of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea.

On January 21, the day following the government’s announcement that it had put aside an additional $300 million to provide insurance assistance to Australian exporters trading with South Korea, the federal health minister, Michael Wooldridge, was presented with a report commissioned by the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Pharmaceutical Manufactures Association. This stated that a prime cause of the appalling Aboriginal morbidity and mortality figures in rural Australia was limited access to and the high cost of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Wooldridge (at the time visiting rural areas of the NT) responded, “It is difficult for a commonwealth government to do much about fruit and vegetables in local stores”.


Aboriginal people are 27 times more likely than other Australians to be in police custody and 11 times more likely to be in prison. On October 17, 1996, Amnesty International’s London Office published a condemnation of Australia’s inordinate incarceration rates for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). It recommended many ways of keeping Aborigines out of custody in order to decrease the number of black deaths in custody. The most recent follow-up report (1996) establishes that Aborigines are being incarcerated at a greater rate now than in 1980-1989, and more Aborigines are dying in custody as a result.

Although Aborigines represent only 1.4% of the adult population, they accounted for more than 25% of all deaths in police and prison custody during the year to June 1996.

Police killings of Aborigines have a long lineage. Officially sanctioned police punitive raids did not end with the 60 to 100 Aborigines slaughtered in the Coniston massacre in 1928, but continued in the north of SA at least until the early 1940s. Police and settlers continued to kill and maim small groups of Aborigines in remote Australia until at least the early 1980s.

In cities, with the notable exception of incidents like the killing of David Gundy, the police content themselves with severe bashings of indigenous Australians. The police are the front line of social control: they selects individuals to be criminalised and, in large part, determine who will be jailed and killed. They are an essential element in political marginalisation of indigenous people.

In recent times, many Australian state and territory governments have adopted “law and order” policies — such as “truth in sentencing” and mandatory jail sentences for minor offences — that have led to a dramatic increase in the number of indigenous people in custody.


The system of having a “protector” of Aborigines never led to the consistent protection of indigenous interests.

From its beginnings in the early 18th century, the protection system too often led to dispersal and dispossession of the original inhabitants. Throughout much of rural and remote Australia, the protector of Aborigines was the local police officer.

So, even for those not confined to the government or church-controlled reserves, the state was omnipresent. The local protector controlled much of the lives of those indigenes not exempted from the status of ward.

Aboriginal workers who were paid had, by law, to pay into bank accounts held by their protectors a fixed percentage of their wages. In Queensland, money held in these accounts was transferred to a special Aboriginal welfare account. When this account was eventually wound up in the 1980s, there was a $30 million shortfall. None of the protectors have been charged.

This leakage of funds from Aborigines’ bank accounts was part and parcel of their administration from the earliest days.

In the early 1960s, following dysentery epidemics on the reserves of western Cape York, the government said it had insufficient funds to upgrade the health clinics on the reserves, but did see its way clear to borrow from the Aboriginal Benefit Fund account $100,000 which it lent to the Redcliffe Hospital Board to build its cityhospital.

The absence of upgraded health facilities at places like Weipa and Mapoon was used by the Queensland government in its efforts between 1959 and 1962 to force Mapoon people from their land and facilitate Comalco’s bauxite mining. The government claimed the absence of decent health facilities meant the Mapoon people were endangering their children’s health.

Land rights and miners

At the 1983 election, the federal Labor Party set out five principles that were to underpin its national land rights policy, including inalienable freehold title, mining vetoes or else the power to set conditions, fair royalties, compensation and sacred site protection.

In 13 years of Labor administration, little progress was made towards implementing these promises. After two years of Liberal-National administration, the idea that such principles might underpin the government’s approach to land rights is a receding pipedream.

In the wake of the High Court’s Wik judgment, pastoralists and miners claimed that native title would bring economic development in Australia to a halt. This language is designed to weaken the bargaining power of the indigenous owners of this land in order that whatever “contribution” miners are forced to make to indigenous communities, in return for not obstructing mining, is a lesser amount than it would have been otherwise.

The dispossession of indigenous people to make way for mining companies has a long history. In the 1950s and ’60s, 93% of land which had been officially reserved since the 19th century for the Aborigines of Mapoon, Aurukun and Weipa in Queensland was alienated. In 1962, the people of Mapoon were taken by boat from their land by armed police who burned their houses. They were deposited at Bamaga on the very tip of Cape York or at Weipa Mission.

Weipa people, a short distance south of Mapoon, had their 6000 square kilometres of reserve land decreased to 124 hectares in 1957, the rest converted into a mining lease for Comalco.

Three hundred kilometres to the west, a transnational conglomerate’s subsidiary (Century Zinc) in 1997 beat into submission the Waanyi people. Murrandoo Yanner, coordinator of the Carpentaria Land Council, has been convicted twice for unlawful assembly, and faced continual harassment by mining company officials, police and other state government officers.

Century Zinc now has the go-ahead to mine, despite the fears of conservationists and indigenous people about ecological damage to dugong feeding and breeding areas in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

After the signing, the Queensland government proudly announced that, since the Aborigines had agreed to allow Century Zinc to mine their land, they could now be provided with the kind of social infrastructure that white Australia takes for granted.

The total project is estimated to be worth $9 billion. The mining company offered $60 million as compensation. Of this, $30 million is to be controlled by the Queensland government to develop social infrastructure.

Employment, infrastructure and development

In 1963, I visited Yarrabah, near Cairns. Housing, whilst basic, was nearly sufficient for all the residents. The Aborigines had run a sawmill and built most of the houses. But the mill closed, and by the time I returned 15 years later, there was a shortage of houses; the houses which were being built were fabricated largely by contractors.

This erosion of indigenous people’s capacity to develop their own territory has been repeated many times.

Sometimes it takes the form of protectors stealing money from the personal accounts of indigenous people. In the NT, in the 1970s and ’80s, it often took the form of the manager of the community store defrauding the community by overcharging or just absconding with the funds.

Sometimes indigenous people were displaced from employment, and therefore income, by an influx of European employees. At Maningrida, in the mid-1970s, this led to major Aboriginal unrest, which resulted in the community reclaiming their jobs and control.

Perhaps the most credible explanation of why many indigenous communities lost heart is presented in the documentary Lousy Little Sixpence (1997). This film points out that the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board early this century removed the right of Aborigines to own and use land on reserves.

At Cumeroogunga Reserve, Aborigines had been granted land, and cleared and ploughed it, only to have the AWB sell it to white farmers. Events of this nature occurred all over Australia.

As well, there was insufficient investment in technological or social infrastructure in Aboriginal reserves to ensure they became productive.

The administrative skills of most people sent to manage reserves were not high. Aboriginal initiative was stifled. The reserves were welfarised, many run like British Poor Law work houses.

Disputation was treated as rebellion, and inordinately repressive powers were given to superintendents to jail people, remove people from a reserve and divide families. Anger, frustration, intimidation, depression, alcoholism and disputation became an everyday feature.

The mechanisms of control on reserves shared many common features with the repression carried out in other outposts of empire by the colonial authorities.

Widespread unemployment and failure to pay award wages to indigenous workers guaranteed that their communities remained impoverished and underdeveloped. When indigenous workers got seasonal jobs away from the reserve, they had to pay a fixed percentage of their money into the bank accounts held by the protector. Those who worked on the reserve were generally paid a training allowance, if they received anything other than rations.

In 1967, many workers on training allowances in the Top End of the NT were receiving less each week than a Darwin family living on welfare assistance. Many of these trainee workers were the sole breadwinner in their families.

Eventually training allowances were replaced by the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), a work for the dole scheme that applied only to indigenous people. Each community was paid on an estimate of how many participants would be attracted to the CDEP in their area.

Some communities found that there were more people wanting to work than there were places. As a result, it was not uncommon for CDEP workers to receive less than they would have had they been in receipt of unemployment benefit. In other communities, people got slightly more than unemployment benefits.

Either way, when coupled with widespread unemployment, it meant that in many communities, more than 90% of the people who received any income survived on social security levels of income. This ensures underdevelopment because the communities do not generate sufficient economic activity to create award-rate jobs.

Prior to the 1960s, very few people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent were paid social security. It was the late 1970s and early 1980s before Aboriginal people in many parts of remote Australia got anything like the same access to social security entitlements as other Australians.

Today, despite many examples of financially successful indigenous businesses — usually in association with the people regaining some or all of their tribal land — a disproportionate number of indigenous Australians live in poverty.

Perhaps indigenous poverty has been exacerbated by the failure of governments, developers and many other institutions to come to a determination of indigenous people’s rights over land.

In Broome and Darwin, it is assumed that Aboriginal people’s relationships to country are mere encumbrances on development, or that their silence on land-use matters indicates concordance with the views of the dominant public.

The minister for Aboriginal welfare in the NT told the federal parliament in 1952: “If any part of a native reserve has ceased to be necessary for the use and benefit of the natives, it may be severed from the reserve and, if mining should take place on the severed portion, royalties will be paid into a special fund to be applied to the welfare of the natives”.

Not much has changed 40 years later at the Lockhart River Aboriginal Reserve. An environmental impact statement lodged in the Queensland Mining Warden’s Court by the company wanting to mine 200 million tonnes of the high grade silica in Shelburne Bay denied the Wuthathi people any current interest in the area on the basis that “a lack of physical presence in the area constitutes a dereliction of interest”. Many Wuthathi people lived less than 80 kilometres away and regularly accessed the area to gather “bush tucker”.

The ‘stolen generations’

White Australia attempted to complete the process of dispossession by taking indigenous children from their communities.

The prime minister refuses to apologise on behalf of the government for the actions of all Australian governments during the period of the stolen children because the present government, he says, was not responsible.

Against the recommendations of the Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997), the Howard government has steadfastly opposed compensation to the children or their families, again on the grounds that this government was not responsible. As academic Adam Jamrozik commented, the Howard government was not responsible for the second world war either, but it continues to pay war pensions.

The real policy question is justice in the present, rather than guilt in relation to past activities.

This is not an endorsement of Pauline Hanson’s call for “all Australians to be treated equally”. Rather, it is a demand that we are all treated equitably. Given the great disparity in wealth, income, health, housing, incarceration rates and age of death of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, to treat indigenous and non-indigenous people equally would not be justice.

The race war begun in 1788 continues.

[John Tomlinson teaches in the School of Social Science at Queensland University of Technology. An updated version of this paper can be found on this website entitled “The intentional underdevelopment of Aboriginal communities”.

http://johntomlinsoncollectedworks.com/socialstruggle/indigenous-issues/the-intentional-…inal-communities/ ‎]